Finding True Sustenance in "The Fertility Diet"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — December 18, 2007

New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope has a no-nonsense story today about “The Fertility Diet,” a new book by several Harvard Medical School researchers that puts forth a 10-step dietary and lifestyle plan to improve a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant.

Sounds great, right? If only it were that simple. Parker-Pope writes:

The problem is that much of the research behind the book doesn’t live up to its hype. “The Fertility Diet” isn’t the first to promote nutritional changes as a way to increase the odds of pregnancy; an online search will turn up any number of titles like “The Infertility Diet,” “Fertility Foods” and so on.

Essentially, their recommendations are alike: a heart-healthy diet with more fruit and vegetables, less meat and bad carbs, more healthy fats and few or no trans fats.

While the messages are similar, a big difference is that the newest book comes from Harvard. As a result, it’s had an enviable amount of buzz. Newsweek even devoted its Dec. 10 cover to an excerpt.

The notion that something as simple as better eating might improve fertility is certain to raise the hopes of tens of thousands of couples. But unfortunately, the findings in this book don’t apply to a vast majority of people with infertility problems. Instead, they are based on women with ovulatory infertility, a condition caused by irregular ovulation that affects fewer than a third of infertile women.

And while it’s never a bad idea to improve your nutrition, there is no definitive evidence that many of the diet changes outlined in the book will increase a woman’s odds of getting pregnant.

The doctors acknowledge as much. Dr. Jorge E. Chavarro, the lead author, describes to the Times the dance that takes place when trying to balance science with the commercial demands of book publishing.

“I would describe it as an apparently fertility-enhancing dietary pattern, but that doesn’t go with the flow of your reading,” Charvarro said. “This is not a cure for infertility. We have been very careful in explaining what we think these dietary changes can do and what they cannot do.”

But Harvard’s promotion isn’t exactly taking a restrained approach. Take a look. Following a list of key recommendations, the website claims: “The Fertility Diet can work on its own or help turbocharge assisted reproduction technologies.”

On the Times health blog, Well, Parker-Pope raises a good question: “The book authors note that even if the diet doesn’t boost a couple’s fertility, it promotes sound nutrition that is good before, during and after a pregnancy. While that is true, I wonder if the hype over ‘The Fertility Diet’ will end up helping couples or merely add to their emotional burden […] Will women now blame themselves for poor eating habits if they can’t conceive?”


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